Monday, July 28, 2008

Fast, Easy, and Addictive

Recently some friends here in town were having a social evening at their business, the neighborhood bookstore. It was a 'Cookies and Lemonade' night, an open invitation to come in, meet, and mingle with other residents of the town. Now you know me, I never like to show up empty-handed, but I just didn't have all day to devote to making anything elaborate. Enter Almond Bars! I, or should I say my mom, acquired this recipe from our former hairdresser years ago, and it is just too easy to believe. The original recipe specifies margarine, but I didn't happen to have anything other than butter on hand. The substitution did end up creating a few differences: the caramel flavor was richer, definitely a butter caramel, and the caramel itself was more opaque and stayed a bit softer after cooking and cooling. When using margarine, the caramel stays a translucent amber and sets up a little harder and faster. I tweaked the recipe a bit flavor-wise as well; the original recipe had just 4 ingredients, but I added a few drops of extracts and a little salt, as I have a deep weakness for salted caramel. I'd say these were the best Almond Bars I've made so far. 

Almond Bars
adapted from Tina

12 whole graham crackers
1 stick of butter
1 C light brown sugar, packed
Sliced almonds 
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
Fine sea salt, for sprinkling

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the butter and brown sugar in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until very bubbly, stirring occasionally, about 8 -10 minutes. In the meantime, break the graham crackers in half and place them on the baking sheet. Sprinkle each graham cracker with almonds, heavy or light as you like. When the butter-sugar mix is really boiling away, remove from the heat and add the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir to combine, and carefully spoon or pour the hot sugar mixture over the graham crackers and nuts. Bake for 10 minutes. When you remove the tray from the oven, sprinkle each bar with a little fine sea salt. Let cool on the baking sheet, then break apart and serve. 

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ooey-Gooey Sticky-Delicious

I tend to get my best ideas as I'm falling asleep. I may remember things that need to get done that I had completely forgotten about, I may suddenly know exactly what gift that person would like, and when I was still in school, just the right topic for a paper would float into my head. A few months ago, I had one of these sleepy brainwaves, and it said "Self-contained s'mores". The next morning, I decided that July 4th would be the perfect occasion to put this concept into action, especially considering that Florida in July is a rather hot place to build a campfire for traditional s'mores. 
I have made my own marshmallows before, so I already had that recipe tested and ready. I knew that I wanted a graham crust, but I wanted it to be a crumb crust, not just a layer of crackers that might shatter when cut. As for the chocolate component, I know that Hershey's Milk Chocolate bars are the standard, but a homemade marshmallow is, to me, much sweeter and nicer than a Jet-Puffed, and dark chocolate would provide a better balance of flavor. With all of this in mind, I began my experiment on July 3rd. I made up a crumb crust and baked it in a greased 13" x 9" pan. After it cooled, I sprayed the sides of the pan with more nonstick spray and dusted them with a 50/50 mix of confectioners' sugar and cornstarch to prevent the marshmallow from sticking to the pan for the rest of time. I then poured the warm magma-like marshmallow on top of the crust, dusted the top with more of the 50/50 mix, and set it aside to cool for about 5 hours. After removing the marshmallows from the pan, with graham crust wonderfully adhered, I used a pastry brush to remove as much 50/50 mix as possible, then employed my sous chef (aka Hubband) to chop and melt the dark chocolate (Valrhona 70% cacao) in a double boiler. I cut the marshmallows into large squares (a little too large, as these are so rich) and quickly and carefully dipped them in the chocolate. I set them aside to drip and cool on a wire rack set over a half sheet pan.  I also experimented with some Wilton Candy Melts and squeeze bottles to make some decorations. I'd say I need to keep working on that technique. 
Here is a shot in cross-section of the two varieties. My brother-in-law always puts peanut butter on his s'mores, so I made sure 6 of the squares had a layer of peanut butter included. The one on the right is obviously the one with the peanut butter layer, which made for a messy cut. Not particularly photogenic, but very delicious. 

Now a few weeks ago, I posted (bragged) about some lovely gifts that Hubband had surprised me with, but I held one back. I wanted to keep it for a post where it would really matter, and this is it, because you can't make marshmallows without a stand mixer. The mixer itself was a wedding gift, but Hubband took it to a whole new level:
He flamed out my mixer! I love it! 

Homemade Marshmallows
adapted from Alton Brown

3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 C ice-cold water
12 oz granulated sugar
1 C light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 C confectioners' sugar
1/2 C cornstarch
Nonstick spray

Place the whisk attachment on your stand mixer. In the bowl of the stand mixer, pour the gelatin and 1/2 c of the cold water. In a saucepan, mix the sugar, corn syrup, salt, and remaining 1/2 C cold water. Turn the burner to medium-high and cover for 4 minutes. Remove the lid and clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Be sure the probe end of the thermometer is not touching the bottom or side of the saucepan. Continue cooking until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, about 8 minutes or so. Remember that the mixture will continue to cook off the heat, so I pull it off the burner at about 238F. It gets to 240 as I walk over to my mixer. Turn the mixer on low speed, and CAREFULLY and SLOWLY pour the hot syrup down the side of the mixer bowl into the gelatin and water, with the machine running. Once all of the syrup is in, increase the mixer speed to high. Whip until thick, glossy, and lukewarm, about 13 minutes. Add vanilla and whip 1 more minute. 
While the mixture is whipping, prepare a 13"x9" pan by spraying the bottom and sides with nonstick spray. Mix the confectioners' sugar and cornstarch, and dust over the sprayed pan. This is a messy step, so I do it over the sink. Tilt the pan around to ensure an even coating of 50/50 mix all over. Reserve some of the 50/50 mix. When the marshmallow has finished whipping, pour it into the prepared pan. Lightly spray a spatula and use it to smooth out the marshmallow. Dust the top with more of the 50/50 mix. Set aside, uncovered, to cool for at least 4 hours. Turn out of the pan onto a cutting board and use a pizza cutter wheel to slice into cubes. Toss lightly with more 50/50 to prevent sticking. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Good Friends and a Good Laugh

I'm lagging behind a little on the posting, but I'm trying to clear the backlog. You don't mind much, do you? 
A few weeks ago, I got an email from my mother's neighbor. (As my mother lives in the same neighborhood as Hubband and I do,  I suppose one could argue he is my neighbor as well.) Anyway, it was his wife's birthday, and he was inviting me to a nice little birthday lunch at our neighborhood cafe. I, of course, accepted, as these neighbors are good friends of ours, and immediately asked if there was any way I could help. Like, say, baking a cake for example. He accepted my offer and told me to have fun with it, which was music to my ears. I had an idea that I thought would be tons of fun, but requires a bit of explanation. 
These neighbors, we'll call them T. and P., enjoy going for bike rides around the town. When they go on these rides, P., the birthday girl, usually takes along a camera and documents any Florida wildlife they encounter along the way. She has a particular knack for keeping track of the resident alligators and documenting their increasing size. (I think knowing where they all are makes her a wee bit more comfortable with their presence.) 
In the spirit of her wildlife quest, I made this: 
The idea is from a book that is getting alot of press in the food-blog-iverse recently, Hello Cupcake! by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson. It's a cute book, with some interesting ideas for cakes of all different occasions, and really ingenious uses for common ingredients and candies. The instructions are pretty clear and straight-forward, although some techniques could be intimidating to new bakers at first, and make sure you block out enough time for all the details. It took me about two hours to decorate this, from first putting buttercream ingredients in the mixer to adding jelly bean nostrils to finish the design. If I made it a second time, I'm sure it would go a little faster. The book suggested vanilla cupcakes and canned frosting, but suspecting a preference for chocolate, I went with homemade dark chocolate cupcakes and vanilla buttercream. The decor theme requires 24 cupcakes, and I made a triple batch of buttercream to be sure I had enough. (I find it nearly impossible to color match one batch of frosting exactly to another.) The cupcakes together proved to be so long that no platter I had would contain them, so I ended up jimmy-rigging one with cutting boards and duct tape, then wrapping it in festive paper. 
P. loved her cake, T. told me that it made the day, and I was thoroughly thrilled with the smiles and laughter it brought to the party. 

Dark Chocolate Cupcakes
adapted from Cooks' Illustrated

This recipe doesn't double very well, but it goes together quickly. I was able to whip up my second batch of batter and have it in the tins before the timer rang on the first dozen.

8 Tb unsalted butter
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped (go for quality, it counts!)
1/2 C (1.5 oz) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
3/4 C (3.75 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder 
1/2 tsp instant coffee granules
2 large eggs
3/4 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp table salt
1/2 C sour cream

Place oven rack in lower middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place paper liners in a standard muffin pan. Cut butter into 4 pieces. Chop chocolate. Combine butter, chocolate, and cocoa powder in a heatproof bowl and set it over a pot of simmering water. Heat until butter and chocolate begin to melt, then whisk until smooth and incorporated. Set aside and cool until the mixture feels barely warm, just a few minutes. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and baking powder. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs just to break down the yolks, then add in the coffee granules, sugar, vanilla, and table salt. Whisk to incorporate. Add cooled chocolate mixture and combine. Sift about 1/3rd of the flour mix over the bowl of chocolate mix, then fold in. Add sour cream to batter and combine, then sift the remainder of the dry mix over and fold in. The batter should be thick and uniformly dark. Divide evenly among the lined muffin cups, and bake 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool in pan until comfortable to handle, about 15 minutes, and then carefully remove from the tin and finish cooling on a wire rack before frosting. 

Easy Vanilla Buttercream
Adapted from Cooks' Illustrated

Makes enough for 12 cupcakes, but if I'm going to be piping the frosting on, I always make extra just in case. Piping designs tend to use a little more than just smoothing on a layer with a palette knife. I tripled this recipe for the Alligator Cake. This can be made ahead and refrigerated, but bring it back to room temperature before trying to spread it. 

10 Tb unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 oz (1 1/4 C) confectioners' sugar
Pinch of table salt 
1 1/2 tsp vanilla paste, or 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract ( I MUCH prefer the Neilsen-Massey Vanilla Paste in this)
1 Tb heavy cream

In a standing mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the butter until smooth, about 15 seconds, and then scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add vanilla paste and whisk to combine, then scrape down again. Add confectioners's sugar and salt, and beat at medium speed until the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds, then scrape down a third time. Beat 15 more seconds, then add the cream and beat until incorporated. Scrape down the bowl, being sure to scrape around at the bottom to prevent a chunk of butter from sticking down there, and then beat at medium-high until the frosting is light and fluffy. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

My Macaron Have Feet!

In my explorations around the food-blog world, I have come across mention of a mysterious, fickle beast known as the "macaron". These Parisian favorites inspire a cult-like following, but appeared to be difficult to master: just the other day I was browsing through a Dorie Greenspan cookbook (for the uninitiated, Dorie is Mistress of All Things French Pastry) and she had a page devoted to macaron. The page detailed their beloved status, but ended by saying that they are too finicky to make at home, and you should just go to Paris and try as many as you can. As I had already planned on attempting to make macaron to give as a hostess gift to some France-loving friends we were about to have dinner with, I found this page of Dorie's to be mildly disconcerting. 
Disconcerting, but not particularly daunting. I forged on, relying on Tartelette and her frequent posting relating to these cookies to guide me. I used one of her recipes, and consulted a thorough manual she wrote up for Desserts Magazine
And so, the day of the dinner with our wonderful former neighbors, I began whipping the egg whites. I carefully continued with every step, piped out the cookies, rested them, and put the first batch in the oven to bake. I forced myself not to peek. What was I dying to peek at? Why are these cookies so fickle? Well, they are meringue-based, which can be tricky in itself. Then you must take exactly the right amount of air back out of the meringue by stirring, and if you've done it properly, there will be a crackly bit at the base of each cookie, all the way around. This crackly bit is called the "foot", and if your macaron don't have feet, then you're not eating macaron. You've just got some random almond meringue cookie. So I waited it out, refused to peek, and when the timer finally rang, it seemed like the trumpets of angels because I'd been so anxious. I opened the oven door, and when Hubband came home from a bike ride a few minutes later, I was dancing around the kitchen and happily exclaiming "My macaron have feet! My macaron have FEET, honey!" (Note: Hubband was out for a bike ride with his sister, who was visiting us from up north, and who has apparently come to terms with the fact that I am odd, because she never once looked askance at me or asked what I was talking about. She just quietly ignored my happy prattle.)
I filled one set of cookies with a dark chocolate-Nutella Ganache, and the other with a nectarine-lime curd. Never having made a curd before, I wasn't sure how firm it would get, and unfortunately, while delicious, it didn't set hard enough to make the cookies stable enough to stack in lovely little bags to bring as the hostess gift. The ganache ones went in their little beribboned bags in a basket, and the curd ones onto a plate. I knew our friends would appreciate the gesture either way. 
Here is a photo of my footed triumph:
The macaron filled with nectarine curd has dried raspberries grated on top for a little zing. I thought it was a nice accent, as the cookies themselves are very sweet. The dark chocolate in the other variety also served to cut through some of the sweetness and balanced nicely. I believe I will make these again, and practice the art of macronnage, as the French call it. 

I used this recipe to make the macaron shells, instead of the boiling-sugar-syrup-Italian-meringue method, which I may try next time. I skipped the praline powder and filled with  3/4 C dark chocolate, melted and mixed with 4 Tb Nutella and 1/2 C heavy cream. 

Saturday, July 5, 2008

First Foray

About two weeks ago, I decided that I missed French Toast. I hadn't had it in several months, and I was feeling the deprivation. French toast has always been a breakfast favorite of mine, whether it be plain or fancy, stuffed or slim. I spoke to Hubband about my craving, and he suggested that we satisfy it by having French toast for dinner, or as we called it in my house growing up, breakfast-supper. 
I knew I wanted a whole-wheat bread, as I'm just not a particular fan of white unless it be a fantastic sourdough, but I also wanted a raisin bread, and I wanted thick slices. I had a feeling this would be hard to find at the grocery store, so I poked my head into the pantry. I knew I had yeast and whole-wheat flour, and I decided to try my hand at making my very own. 
I have made quick breads before, banana, zucchini, welsh tea, etc., but never a yeast-risen loaf. We had a bread machine when I was a kid, and Mom would make fresh bread for us, but I had never done it, start to finish, all by my lonesome. 
I found a good looking recipe right on the back of the flour bag and used it as a starting point. I added raisins, upped the flour a little as the dough seemed sticky, and folded in a cinnamon sugar swirl. Here is my result: 
The whole point of making the bread was to make French toast though, and that's exactly what we did.
I decided to have a French toast blowout, so I cut thick slices and slathered them with a luscious mix of mascarpone cheese, orange juice, orange zest, vanilla, diced strawberries, and a hint of sugar. Dipped in a custard of milk, eggs, cinnamon and vanilla and then griddled to golden brown, the only way this could get any better was if we topped it with Hubband's signature blueberry-nectarine sauce-so we did. With a few extra sliced strawberries and a glass of honeymoon bubbly, it was a fantastic first attempt at bread-making. 

Whole-Wheat Raisin Bread
adapted from King Arthur Flour

We liked this so much that I ended up making 3 loaves in a week: the first, plus a second for weekend breakfast toast for company and a third for my mom. 

2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/3 cups lukewarm water (100-110 degrees)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup maple syrup (substitute honey or molasses if you like)
3 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup cinnamon-sugar (optional and done to taste, add more or less, heavier or lighter on the cinnamon)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine all ingredients EXCEPT the raisins and cinnamon-sugar. Fit the dough hook attachment to the mixer and turn it on low. Let it continue until the dough comes together. Turn off and scrape down the sides of the bowl, and the dough hook, and then turn the mixer back on medium-low and let it knead for 6 minutes. Add the raisins and knead for 2 more minutes. Turn off the mixer and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for a few seconds by hand to be sure the raisins are evenly distributed and the dough isn't sticky. Shape into a ball and place back into the mixer bowl. Spray with a little canola oil and place in a warm spot to rise for about 60 minutes, until puffy and close to doubled in size. 
Lightly grease an 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf pan. 
After the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and gently pat it out to a rectangle about 8 inches wide by 10 inches long. Sprinkle evenly with the cinnamon-sugar. Pick up the 8 inch end furthest from you and roll it tightly toward you like a jelly roll. Gently put the rolled loaf into the prepared pan seam-side down. Place a piece of lightly oiled plastic wrap loosely over the top and move it back to the warm spot to proof for another 30-60 minutes, or until the loaf top has crowned about 1 inch above the edge of the pan. 
Bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 20 minutes, tent lightly with foil, and bake another 20-30 minutes, or until the internal temp reaches 190 F or the loaf sounds hollow when you take it out of the pan and tap the bottom. Cool on a wire rack. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Urban Cavemen

It finally happened. The new Whole Foods opened. For months, we've been waiting, watching, wondering when the opening would be, and it was last Wednesday. Finding a parking spot was a battle, and there were folk everywhere. The whole event, with people grasping for free samples and ignoring parking lot etiquette... it all just made me think of cavemen. 
Can't you imagine cavemen, having just heard of or found a new food source, all exploring it, checking out every nook and cranny, feeling protective of it, as if it will disappear if they don't get to it this very second? That's what the new Whole Foods looked like this week. I have it on good authority that they made more than $250,000 in profit the very first day. In PROFIT people! On the first day! 
I'm not going to judge. I was there too, looking for ingredients and products that I haven't been able to find elsewhere. And find them I did. Most of them. (It's really hard to find Dutch-Processed cocoa powder around here. Hershey's seems to be the only option.)
I also found this: 
It's a Red Dragonfruit. I have seen photos of regular Dragonfruit, which has a white interior speckled with those tiny black seeds, but never a Red. Surprisingly, this was one of the Local Food options, grown right here in Florida. I picked one up just for fun, and Hubband and I tucked into it that evening. With such a vibrant, aggressively-colored fruit, one might expect a big flavor, but this fruit is amazingly mild. It is sort of reminiscent of a pear crossed with a kiwi, and a hint of watermelon aftertaste. Very interesting. The texture is soft; you don't really need to chew it, just squash it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue for a burst of juice. The little black seeds are very similar to Kiwi fruit, crunchy, tiny and slick. It was a beautiful fun fruit, but I'm not sure I would ever hanker for one they way I might for grapes or pineapple. It would be beautiful in a fruit salad.